Home advantage provides Denman with the perfect stage for Gold Cup challenge

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The Independent Online

The score for his meeting with Kauto Star at Cheltenham next month will involve kettle drums and the full brass section. In the symphony of the jumps season, however, today represents the violin solo for Denman – a moment to savour the harmony of his jumping, the rhythm of his gallop. He cannot afford to spoil the crescendo by simply offering a meek tap of the triangle instead.

The Aon Chase at Newbury will not really allow Denman to enhance his credentials for his impending showdown with the champion housed in the very next stable to his own. The best he can do is maintain the inexorable tempo of his journey through the ranks, and leave Newbury as he arrives – sound of limb, and unchallenged (never mind unbeaten) over fences.

As Kauto Star himself discovered in similar circumstances last year, the only material alteration he might achieve in his status is a negative one. Kauto Star did win, but only after reiterating anxiety about his jumping and some fairly frantic encouragement to hold off an inferior rival. As it turned out, that rehearsal proved rather a red herring, once he got to Cheltenham, so perhaps Paul Nicholls will again be leaving himself plenty of slack this afternoon.

All that can be said is that this is very much a home game for Denman, who has won three steeplechases round here already, notably that ruthless exhibition in the Hennessy Gold Cup in December. He won that day off 161; in contrast Regal Heights, the only progressive rival he faces today, ran off only 140 when making his own case for a step up in class at Haydock last month. Ollie Magern at least runs well fresh, but Celestial Gold must prove himself over his problems.

All in all, this must be treated – and seized – as an opportunity to boost the confidence of horse and rider before the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Sam Thomas, having surrendered the mount to Ruby Walsh at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, is back on board today because the stable jockey has offered an early commitment to Kauto Star. As a reward for his team spirit, Walsh knows that he would be able to retrieve Denman from his deputy should anything go amiss with Kauto Star.

It may well prove that Denman's Cheltenham prospects will be measured more accurately tomorrow, when some of his most illustrious victims meet at Leopardstown. Snowy Morning chased him home at the Festival last year, while The Listener and Beef Or Salmon were third and fourth when Denman graduated to open company here last time.

But this race may prove a more pertinent signpost to the John Smith's Grand National, where Snowy Morning is favourite, Beef Or Salmon topweight, and Hedgehunter the hardiest of Aintree perennials. For those of us who have long since pinned our colours to the mast of Snowy Morning, it is heartening to see Walsh take the ride tomorrow. As Nicholls himself has one of the other National favourites in Mr Pointment, this could prove as important a weekend for Thomas as for Walsh.

Roman Villa to put Elliott back in news

If Aintree sometimes seems to distribute its favours with a random hand, Gordon Elliott can no longer be viewed as one such beneficiary. True, he had only had three previous winners when Silver Birch introduced his name to millions last April. But a variety of other horses have since confirmed Elliott to be a young trainer of unusual gifts, and he can plunder another big prize at Newbury today.

Admittedly the competition to Roman Villa (3.20 nap) is commensurate with the money on offer in the Totesport Trophy, with Five Dream, Palomar and Blue Bajan amongst the less exposed opposition. Blue Bajan, indeed, has tempted no less a horseman than Richard Hughes to remind us that his genes and roots did not first dispose him to Flat racing.

In the course of his dramatic improvement for Elliott this winter, however, Roman Villa has repeatedly hinted that he could yet do better still. The better the company, the easier he seems to travel. The stiff finish at Cheltenham has twice stifled his turn of foot, and likewise heavy ground at Leopardstown last time. Drying conditions on this level playing field will play to his strengths, and Timmy Murphy should fit him like a glove.

Voy Por Ustedes, having been somewhat usurped by Twist Magic this winter, may also have his work cut out giving 6lb to a stablemate of that horse in the Totepool Game Spirit Chase. Master Minded (2.10) was no doubt kindly treated for his handicap debut at Sandown last time, but the word is that he has continued to flourish since.

Meanwhile the Hennessy is just one of three Grade One races on a fine card at Leopardstown tomorrow. The first three in the big novice race at the Christmas meeting reconvene in the Deloitte Hurdle, Whatuthink having given Forpadydeplasterer and Cork All Star the slip after setting a steady gallop.

And the Dr P J Moriarty Novice Chase as usual brings together some of the best young steeplechasers in Ireland, though her mares' allowance will make Willie Mullins's J'y Vole hard to beat.

Murphy forecasts rapid Lee recovery

Jump jockeys are nine parts flesh and blood, and one part steel – variously comprising screws and plates, inserted by skilled surgeons, or the sort of courage you have to be born with. Graham Lee now has both types, having had his jaw broken in two places in a grotesque fall at Huntingdon on Thursday. And while the mere intention would suggest deeper damage to lesser folk, he may yet make the Cheltenham Festival next month.

Ferdy Murphy's stable jockey underwent surgery yesterday and the prognosis was improbably optimistic. "The normal process is about six weeks for such an injury, but with Graham being as fit as he is, that could be shorter," Murphy said. "Hopefully he'll be back for Cheltenham and if not, Aintree. I remember Robert Winston having the same injury. He was out for three or four months, so we're thrilled the breaks are clean and the surgery went fantastic."

Stoute offer of help shows humanity

The real damage to Graham Lee was done after he hit the ground. But he is not the only jockey in recent days to have been kicked when he is down.

For every man prepared to congratulate Kieren Fallon on the stoical perspective he has brought to his 18-month suspension by the French racing authorities after failing a drugs test, another has dismissed him as, nowadays, more trouble than he is worth.

It is at a time like this that you know who your friends are. And Fallon feels privileged to count among them Sir Michael Stoute, who this week offered him sanctuary and stability at a time he needs it most. He has been through three and a half years of adversity, almost entirely devised by the ignorance and paranoia of men who seem accountable to nobody. Both his drug violations came during a saga of isolation and depression. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.

It must be said that Stoute himself does not have the most cherished of names in the press box. He is far more evasive, and far less patient, than most other trainers. But where we scribes remain routinely, casually judgemental, he has shown his humanity and his class.

Shergar saga has its funny side

It can hardly be counted the most difficult anniversary of a week that has chafed the scars of Munich, and found them still tender, half a century on. Even the fact that he was one of the most sumptuously gifted runners ever foaled does not alter the fact that Shergar, in the end, was just a horse. As it is, the passage of time has laced the horror of his fate, 25 years ago, with flavours of the surreal, even of the downright comic. Above all, the idea of Derek Thompson trying to keep the stallion's kidnappers on the phone – for as long as possible – raises endless possibilities. Perhaps it gave him the idea for his tipping line.

Surely even those guys must have been out of their depth with the egregious broadcaster. Love him or hate him (and if you hate him, you really do need to lighten up a little), Thommo is a man you couldn't knock down with a mallet. It turned out that the police were unable to record the call anyway. That's a shame, because it would be worth fortunes now. The whole thing is straight out of Life On Mars.